On one of our recent trips to Ashley, we had the opportunity to interview 94-year-old former miner Bill Hastie, who shared with us his knowledge of the Ashley Planes (among many, many other topics for later discussion).
Built in 1837 and used through 1948 — making them the longest-lived inclined planes in history — the Ashley Planes were comprised of three separate inclined railroad systems that transported coal between Ashley and Solomon’s Gap. With only 2.5 miles of track, the system provided a shortcut for transporting tons of coal up the mountain — an otherwise 12.5-mile journey by traditional rail.
While we had previously read about the Planes in our research of the Huber Breaker, we didn’t realize, until our conversation with Mr. Hastie and his daughter Megan, that remnants still exist.
But before we could explore the Planes, we had to find them — a surprising challenge.
While a Google search resulted in lots of hits for Ashley Planes, none provided a clear location or directions. So we hit the road. A few miles away in Sugar Notch, we asked a group of teenagers (who were doing what teenagers do) for some help. The result? Lots of blank (bloodshot) stares and directions to “keep driving straight” and it will be “right there.”
So we found our way back to Ashley and asked some nice residents — one who happened to be the town’s former postmaster – to point us in the right direction. To our surprise, they didn’t know either.
Yet, we were determined to solve what was becoming the mystery of the Ashley Planes. Another Google search led us to a RailRoad.net discussion board and insight into finding and navigating the area. A short drive and 10-minute hike later, we arrived at a stunning waterfall and pond that locals were using as a swimming hole.
We kept hiking up the rocky incline and found some remnants of the Planes – some wires, concrete slabs and a large pipe (now repurposed as a diving board) that we later learned fed water from the reservoir system to the Breaker during its operation. We also learned that locals know this area as “The Sandy” (not to be confused with its counterparts, “The Millie” and “The Rocky”), which may explain our struggle to get directions (not to mention the fact that some swimmers we met had no idea the area was one time used to transport coal).
Now realizing that we only explored a small portion of the Planes, we’ll soon be heading back to hike the remainder. In the meantime, check out Annie Bohlin’s comprehensive history of the Ashley Planes, courtesy of the Mountain Top Historical Society.